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Nuclear Registration: The Untold Story

Fortnightly Magazine - August 1995

that modified Criterion 4, essentially rescinding the requirement after it had already cost utilities and ratepayers hundreds of millions of dollars. This is what a mere seven lines of regulation cost the industry; the price the United States has paid for thousands of pages of such

regulations is staggering. Promulgating regulations, however capricious, was considered laudable behavior at the NRC. The threat of even more regulation kept the industry silent. A past NRC commissioner's statement, "I don't give a damn about nuclear energy, I just want to make it safe," sums up the mob mentality among the regulators. In 1991, Kent Hansen et al. of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) issued a report stating: "What is unique to the United States is a highly antagonistic relationship between regulators and utilities."15 Insiders have known this for 20 years.

Ancillary Benefits

Obviously, a few of the new regulations did bring improvements. For example, great strides have been made in the past 10 years in what is known as "human factors engineering," or the interface between man and machine. This area has applications in computer "friendliness," cockpit design in airliners, automobile design, as well as control room design for reactors. Reactor control rooms are now much more "user friendly" than those completed earlier.

A second example relates to emergency preparedness and evacuation exercises, which have organized and coordinated the local, state, and federal agencies that would be involved in plant-related emergencies. These emergency plans have often been activated during real situations. Interestingly, most of the emergencies have not involved the nuclear plant itself, but rather nearby chemical spills, railroad derailments, and other accidents having nothing to do with the nuclear power plant. The cost of the emergency facilities, communication centers, emergency practices, and training have largely been borne by the nuclear utility (em not by those responsible for the neighboring emergencies.

Other improvements include the 24-hour presence of a "shift technical advisor" in the control room. He or she enhances the ability of the reactor operators to respond to off-normal conditions. These and other changes are good; they have been implemented at relatively low cost. But the vast majority of regulations offer little justification in the way of engineering or safety improvements. Fear, not wisdom, drives the regulatory process even today.

Admitting Guilt

Too late for many utilities and ratepayers, the NRC and Congress have at last come to recognize these regulatory excesses. For example, Congressman James Broyhill entered the following statement into the Congressional Record: "It is now widely recognized that many of the problems plaguing our nation's nuclear power program are due in large measure to the manner in which the federal government regulates this industry."16

In his report to Congress, issued March 11, 1985, James Tourtellotte, chairman of the NRC Regulatory Reform Task Force, made this statement about the backfitting rule (10 CFR 50.109):


"The primary purpose of the [backfitting] rule when it was passed on March 31, 1970, was to improve the stability of the licensing by minimizing the alterations of structures, systems or components of a nuclear power